Do you know how to read the following Chinese characters? They look like different characters, but they actually belong to the same character “學”. The lack of logical connection between characters and meaning often cause headaches to beginners who have just started to learn Chinese characters. Why are there so many glyphs in a Chinese character? What are traditional Chinese characters and simplified Chinese characters? How many Chinese characters do I have to learn to be able to read Chinese writings? Let us find out the answers together through reading the below introduction.
1. Evolution of Chinese Characters
Chinese characters have a history of more than 5,000 years. At first, the ancients remembered things by drawing patterns on utensils, and then these patterns evolved over time and gradually formed Chinese characters. The evolution of Chinese characters are as follows:
Oracle Bone Inscriptions 甲骨文 jiǎgǔwén
甲 (jiǎ) means a tortoise shell, 骨 (gǔ) means bone, Oral Bone Inscriptions are texts carved on a tortoise shell or animal bone. This is the earliest form of Chinese characters.
Bronze Inscriptions 金文 jīnwén
金 (jīn) refers to bronze, mental. Bronze Inscriptions are words engraved on bronze.
Small Seal Characters 小篆 xiǎozhuàn
The problem of one character corresponding to multiple glyphs also existed in ancient times. After the first emperor of Qin (Qin Shi Huang) unified China, he adopted Small Seal Characters as the standard script used throughout the country. The unification of the glyphs this time had a profound impact on the standardization of Chinese characters.
Official Script 隸書 lìshū
The Small Seal Characters are complicated, and the writing speed is relatively slow. In order to improve writing efficiency, people began to use the Official Script more often. Starting from the Official Script, the pictographic characteristics of the characters are weakening, and the glyphs are getting closer to the shape of modern Chinese characters.
Regular Script 楷書 kǎishū
The character “楷” in “楷書” is from “楷模 modal”, means the regular script is a very standard Chinese character font, and its Chinese character structure is very strict.
Cursive Writing or Grass Stroke Characters 草書 cǎoshū
Cursive script is a font created on the basis of Official Script for the convenience of writing. Some strokes are omitted during the rapid writing of Chinese characters. Now the artistry of cursive script is greater than its practicality, because their glyphs are often illegible to the untrained eye.
Freehand Cursive 行書 xíngshū
Freehand Cursive is a font developed on the basis of Regular Script. It is between Regular Script and Cursive Writing. It is smoother than Regular Script and is not illegible like Cursive Writing.
Taking “魚 fish” as an example, the evolution of Chinese characters is as follows:
2. Traditional and Simplified Characters
In order to comply with the law of the development of Chinese characters, China issued the Chinese Character Simplification Plan. From 1956 to 1986, a total of 2,235 Chinese characters were simplified. These are the simplified Chinese characters that we use now. The simplified Chinese character strokes are greatly reduced, making Chinese characters easier to remember. The simplification process of Chinese characters has certain rules. Part of the simplified characters is to select the glyphs of Cursive Writing and Freehand Cursive. The “魚 fish” in the above text is an example, Regular Script is “魚”, the Cursive Writing and Freehand Cursive are “鱼”. Simplify the four dots of the traditional Chinese character “魚” into one horizontal line.
3. Number of Chinese Characters
A total of 60,370 Chinese characters are included in the Chinese Dictionary published by Modern Times, which is a very large number. But don’t worry, the commonly used Chinese characters are between 6,000 to 9,000.
Let us narrow down the scope a little bit. According to the List of Commonly Used Modern Chinese Characters issued by the National Language Commission, there are 2,500 commonly used Chinese characters and 1,000 frequently used characters. A study conducted a test on a corpus of 3 million characters and found that the coverage rate of 2,500 commonly used characters was as high as 97.97%. In other words, after knowing 2,500 Chinese characters, you can “read” most of the Chinese writing.
I use the quoted “閱-read” to remind everyone that knowing Chinese characters does not mean that you can understand the meaning of the text. For example, you may know “明-bright” and also know “白-white”, but when you see the word “明白”, you may not know it means “understand”. Knowing Chinese characters is only one aspect of learning Chinese. The more Chinese characters you know does not mean the more Chinese vocabulary you know. While learning Chinese characters, vocabulary and grammar learning are equally important.
The Confucius Institute will be launching an online Chinese characters course that aims to introduce the basics of Chinese characters and vocabularies. The online Chinese characters course will also help students to establish a connection between the shape and meaning of the characters through the explanation of the etymology. There are a total of ten lessons in this course. Common strokes and radicals will be introduced at the beginning of the course, and Chinese characters will be explained later. Each lesson will teach about 6 to 7 Chinese characters. After completing the course, students will be able to master at least 70 Chinese characters. The online course will roll out in September 2020 and to be offered to all students of the Confucius Institute. Please stay tuned.
If you want to learn more about Chinese characters, you can also watch the following video:
黃伯榮，廖序東. 現代漢語 北京：高等教育出版社
Huang Borong, Liao Xudong. Modern Chinese. Higher education press, Beijing.